The United States ought to pursue a strategy of denial in its dealings with China, mitigating the country’s capacity to undermine U.S. interests by preventing it from taking undesirable actions, according to a former Department of Defense official.
“Denial is the standard of denying China’s ability to subordinate our willing allies, and that includes Taiwan,” said Elbridge Colby, founder of the Marathon Initiative, a think tank focused on great power competition. “I’m concerned that if we’re not prepared and the Chinese are, we will actually increase the risk of war.”
Colby delivered the remarks at a webinar for the Brookings Institution dedicated to unpacking his new book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.”
Colby had served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. In that role, he led efforts to craft the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which was the first of its kind to identify countering China as the core organizing focus of U.S. defense policy.
The ideas explored in Colby’s book in many ways reflect the lessons learned in the years since that strategy was released and the strategic developments that continue to shape the Sino–U.S. relationship.
“The book is essentially motivated by my sense that we are, in effect, continuing to pursue this sort of global strategy of heavy engagement that we’ve pursued since the end of the Cold War,” he said.
Colby said U.S. strategic aspirations have outpaced its military and diplomatic capabilities. Because of this, the nation has risked stretching itself too thin to effectively prevent or win a war.
To change that, Colby said the United States needs to deny China the ability to siphon off international support and to continue building its international coalition against Chinese adventurism. That means ensuring that allies and partners feel protected from China’s machinations.
“The key to keeping this coalition going is for states that are in it to think that they will be protected enough to make it a rational decision,” he said. “I think a lot of states want a balance, but if they don’t think they’re going to be protected, they’re going to cut a deal. They’re going to bandwagon.”
A sound defense strategy needs to proceed from a rational grand strategy, according to Colby. Washington’s actions around the world should proceed in a manner consistent with the rational self-interests of Americans, he said.
“We don’t want to let any other state become so powerful that they can coerce us about our core interests, our freedom, our security, and our prosperity, which are so central to the American idea and American life,” he said.
To that end, Colby recommended that the United States “sprint” to maximal deterrence and denial capabilities to bring China to the proverbial negotiating table and eventually reach a détente.
The reason that he suggested this strategy is that China would be very cautious about starting a war, but once it’s involved, it would likely commit itself wholeheartedly. Thus, front-loading U.S. and allied power to prevent a conflict from ever starting is key to avoiding catastrophe.
“I’m not looking to regime-change them or humiliate them or stop their growth,” Colby said. “But I want them to have to negotiate the terms of their future rise on terms that are acceptable to us.”